Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Not Going to Warn You Again," She Warned


Like many of your generation, you became aware of repetition on a meaningful level when the time arose for you to commit to memory the so-called multiplication tables. 

Not going You can recall teachers who, in the act of presenting repetition to you in the context of an aid to memorization, referred to the meme of how the you-of-the-future will appreciate and understand the importance of what the you-in-the-now were about to undertake.

Experience may well be the best teacher, a truth to be expanded upon by pressing the repeat button; thus more experience becomes an even more superlative teacher. But such is the nature of repetition that doing over something successful the first time through is given short shrift.

To set the matter to rest, you're not sorry you committed the multiplication tables to memory, nor are you all that glad. If anything, you wish you'd not stopped with twelve, burning into memory the thirteen and fourteen because it now seems to you how you have more occasion to plumb the depths of a thirteen- or fourteen-times X than any of the lesser predecessors.

This could also imply another truth: had you taken your memorization beyond twelve, you might this very December day in 2016 have no irritation for the times in recent years when you had to rely on mathematics rather than memory.

You are in fact saddest about the things you repeat without deliberation, rather by accident, which means you have to go back to rewrite, rephrase, even rethink your way out of what you consider the clunky sound of an unwanted repetition. Nothing sounds more as though you'd fallen asleep during a composition session than unintentional repetition.

On the other hand, a well-orchestrated repetition of a word or phrase adds to the emphatic cadence of a sentence. You've no qualms about admitting as a personal,  primary goal in composition, the wish to convey a meaningful and accessible outcome when you offer fact, opinion, or argument.

Repetition becomes important to you in direct proportion to your growing awareness of the significance of every word in a story. Unnecessary words become metaphoric albatrosses, weighting down the dramatic effect, increasing the unwanted sense that the material before you in effect stops the story in order to describe.

The writer Junot Diaz has done some intriguing things with the use of footnotes in fiction. Lesser writers than he stay away from such variations in convention, but Diaz, in his most recent novel, has made them seem an integral part of the narrative, their typographical distance from the actual text to the contrary notwithstanding. His use was daring, but from his success, you could see how he knew when to take the risk.

Most other writers, yourself included, need to consider with care the temptations to deviate from conventional format, reminding themselves how the goal of fiction has evolved from a telling, descriptive mode to one where the reader is situated inside the story, where the story appears to be taking place around not only the narrator of the text but the reader of the text.

The right repetition enhances this interior emphasis; the wrong repetition--one that seems to be an oversight or moment of editorial laziness--reminds the reader of the fragile apparatus story is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Status Symbols

In recent classes, you found yourself making a statement with the metaphoric equivalent of creating static electricity when sliding over the seat covers of an automobile, then creating a visible shard of static electricity when you reach for and touch something metallic.

The statement has to do with the absolute need of a scene to show tangible recognition to the need for the presence of power and/or status. In earlier times, you made a similar statement about the need for any given scene in any given story to cause the evocation of at least one emotion. During those earlier times, you were at least far enough along the trail of your own learning process to count suspense as an emotion.

You're well beyond such homilies and take-for-granted recognition in which a scene must, among other things, advance the story or in some way define the growth of one or more characters. You're well beyond to the point of noting the tremendous load the scene must carry in order to be successful, immersed in the awareness of all the basic elements or dramatic DNA traces necessary for a scene to qualify as a scene.

The difference between a scene and event is every bit as extraordinary as the difference between a protozoan and a human. While both are living organisms, the latter is exponentially more complex and intraconnected. An event may have one or two dimensions, a scene can reach the state of being an extended moibius strip, the Klein bottle, itself the embodiment of properties and conditions a simple, two-sided object such as a sheet of manuscript paper cannot express in physical form, but can serve as host for a physical description of the complexity.

Scenes in which more than one person appear have a built-in status, a notion you first heard in a valued political science course and a part of your undergraduate minor. "Whenever two or more persons gather," the instructor said, "a political condition arises." You snapped alert, notions of status and power whirling about in the interstices of your thought process. 

You recall spending your spare time over the next few days compiling a list of such bi-polar circumstances. Indeed, these are bi-polar circumstances, even among identical twins. In such cases, the status or class awareness may shift (all the better for story dynamics) as differing aspects of personality and ability assume prominence.

We read story to experience these shifts in status and power, following the shift with the same kind of excitement inherent in a close contest, election, or sporting event. Unbalanced status or power is always a splendid entry into a story; we form allegiances with the characters (example: Ivanhoe) rooting for one to gather the power or status to bring down the other, to restore in effect what may have been usurped.

Upset status has long been recognized as one of the major starting points for kind of story in which the goal is to show at least one character restoring enough self- and ethnic or national esteem to satisfy our inner scale of acceptable stasis.

Class, power, and status are manifest in every culture, thus such tropes as the wisdom or respect for one's elders, the notion that youth must be served, and a concept you first investigated in depth in a course in anthropology wherein the clash between generations. The young generation wants its inheritance in order to work its own epic successes and discoveries while at the same time the older generation understands how much status and power it loses after passing over the inheritance.

You are acute these days to individuals opening doors for you or seating you at the head of a table or serving you first. These activities are tributes and conventions of politeness. Although you have held doors open for countless others, referred to yet others as Sir or Ma'am, offered your seat or position to elders or those for whom you had a strong sense of respect, you neither sought such recognition for yourself not felt entirely comfortable when they were extended to you.

This sense of what you think of as status pluses and minuses had its beginning, so far as you can recall, before your move from Los Angeles to what appears to be your new permanent home, Santa Barbara, and your participation in the writers' baseball game, in season played weekly. On those times when there were not enough of your tribe present, you relied on "drafting" neighborhood kids, all too willing to join in.  Your memory takes you back then, to your late 30's, edging into fourth decade, and a youngster named Ronnie Gunderson.

On the day you have in mind, Gunderson was acquired for your side, with the thought to move George Bishop, generally as capable a second baseman as could be wanted, to shortstop, with young Gunderson at second.  There you are, in your customary center field, positioning yourself under a tall, lazy fly ball, waiting for it to drop into your glove, already aware of your next move, which would be to throw it to George Bishop, covering second, against the potential of the runner on first base thinking to advance himself to second after your catch.

"He's tagging up," Gunderson called, warning you in acceptable baseball dialogue of teamwork. But he didn't leave it at that. Gunderson had to add, "Sir," to his warning and the additional admonition, "Throw to second, sir."

You did indeed throw the ball you'd just caught on the fly, sending it over to George Bishop in time to send the base runner scurrying back to first base. After the final out of the inning, when you were trotting in toward the sidelines with Bishop, you couldn't help saying, "Little fucker's got to go."

"He calls everybody sir," Bishop said.

"No excuse," you said. "You come out here to play or get called sir?"

Bishop, whose editor you were, had an answer for that. "I come out here to play ball, grow a bit older, and resent those in our midst with no traces of arthritis."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

First Door on Your Left--er, Right

Not long after delivering a brief commentary to a group of writers on the need to look out for and subsequently edit out habit words--words one tends to repeat without purpose or intention--you found yourself using one of your favorite habit metaphors.

Your own major habit word is "and," which you use to season early drafts of written material the way your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, seemed to season everything he ate with Tabasco. Your   go-to habit metaphor is "down the rabbit hole," the very portal Alice used to gain entry into Wonderland and, subsequently, "Through the Looking Glass."

You could evoke a shaky image of Gertrude Stein by saying "A door is a door is a door," nevertheless a tribute to her observation about roses and then, all things. Instead, you're content to leave the relevant matter at this: A door is an entryway to a place; a portal is an entryway to story.

Within any given place, however humble or luxurious, there is bound to be some potential for a story, gathering its stormy forces together, waiting to achieve escape velocity before inflicting itself upon one or more invented characters. So far as you are concerned, the choice of portal instead of door makes a direct accusation: Story awaits beyond this point. In fact, story awaited Alice the moment she fell through the rabbit hole. 

Story awaits the reader who follows a character to the point of confrontation with a portal, is overcome by need, curiosity, or a combination of the two, then takes that one irreversible step beyond.

One of the more significant subgenera of science fiction deals with intriguing landscape of time travel, wherein a character has encountered a means for returning to the past or moving forward in time to experience the universe as it will become.

During the past year or so, you've spent a good deal of time reading, rereading, and teaching such novels of William Faulkner as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom; and Sanctuary, most of which devote some time to the past, all of which have emphatic references to the past.

The convergence of your awareness of "down the rabbit hole" as a habit metaphor, your reading/teaching of Faulkner, and the free-floating notion in regular orbit about you of the mystery novel being the paradigm for the effectively told story bring you to a new way of seeing the portal.  As a consequence of this convergence, you now believe (not necessarily in order of importance):

1. A story needs an entry portal.

2. All story is alternate universe.

3. All mystery is alternate universe

4. Opening lines and paragraphs are portals.

5. Your own process for composing fiction has a portal.

6. To put yourself in a position where you can engage your process, even if it is to add only a line or two to the work in progress, you must find the portal, then enter it.

7. There will be times when you will not find the entry portal at home.

8. There will be times when the entry portal to process is in a coffee shop or other place with distracting ambient noise.

9. You will need to concentrate above the distractions and ambient noise in order to achieve the necessary relaxation to enter the process zone.

10. Tenseness and grim determination do not unlock portals.

11. Your own process requires a sense of mischief or amusement, without which the odds of producing keepable pages lessen to a significant degree.

12. Mischief and amusement are not alternate universes for you; they are necessary conditions and sufficient conditions; they ratify the worth of writing in the context of writing being a difficult task.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Alternate Reality: Substituting Certainty with Doubt

Approximately twenty years before you began teaching at the University of Southern California, you were a participant in a promotional prank in which you, dressed in a yellow toga, and wearing a curly blond wig that made you look something like Harpo Marx, were tied to the beloved and iconic statue known to all loyal USC students and alumni as Tommy Trojan.

Your yellow toga was embroidered with the word Scop, which in its original usage, meant an Anglo-Saxon bard.  "The din of revelry and the scop's sweet song..." Beowulf

You were somewhere on the editorial ladder of Scop, the campus humor magazine, at the other end of Los Angeles, UCLA.  Scop was also an acronym for Southern Campus [of the University of California] Official Publication.

Scop and the USC humor magazine, Campus, indulged a profitable rivalry.  After you were tied to the statue of Tommy Trojan and doused with soda water spray from siphon bottles, you were offered towels from the USC gym and escorted to a station wagon that was property of the Associated Students of UCLA, where, with other members of the Scop staff, you drove toward the western quadrant of Los Angeles, where UCLA is still located. You never thought to return to the USC campus, much less with any notion you would teach classes there for so many years, meeting extraordinary students, remarkable-to-the-point-of absurdity faculty mates and, among these, many individuals who would become dear friends.

You also encountered administrators, including a major archaeologist, who sat through a number of your classes and became a close friend, a lieutenant dean who wrote a series of mystery novels in which you appeared as a detective from the Bronx Police Department, and another administrator who was upset with you for having engaged the dean of your school in a conversation about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, having discovered he was a linguist.

Nothing works so well as a reminder of the literary genre called alternate universe than a conversation about an experience you had, a place you visited, a book you read, a gathering you attended.  You listen with the interest of politeness to the individual with whom you're having the conversation.

Your degree of politeness is in direct proportion to your estimation of the individual with whom you converse; she or he could drop some detail or observation that will add to your own interpretation of the same experience, making it better or, possibly, quite worse if the other person appears to have got more out of the experience, seen more in its significance, taken away more from it that you.

The You of whom you speak is a veritable sponge and simultaneous Wikipedia of information, a veritable compendium of Jungian archetype, Freudian symbol, and the simultaneous exegesis of critics and observers from as far back as Aristotle to the more recent likes of Empson, Focault, Zinn, Suntag, and Didion. This is the You at top form, the You you are more often than not used to being.

More often than not is the key here; it is not a fix condition.

The downside of this acceptance of self is the vision manifesting itself in this theoretical conversation you're having with the strong possibility of envy, struggling to get beyond mere envy, then coalesce into Envy that the person with whom you engage this theoretical conversation is on so many levels a more accomplished viewer/reader/audience than you. "I was at the event of which you speak," the theoretical conversationalist has told you, "but I don't recognize any of the details you provide, nor do I interpret the various outcomes the way you do."

In summary, the conversation other appears to be saying, "I saw so much more than you did, much of it contrary to your vision, that I wonder if you were actually there.  Perhaps you got it second hand, say a newspaper report. Perhaps you heard a different account of it. Perhaps there are two books with the same title. 

Perhaps there was some strong coincidence such as Ed McBain using Jaberwocky in one of his titles, which would then cause it to appear that he had the idea of using that title in one of his titles long before you did, when the opposite is true (because he told you so)."

Each individual has the capacity to evoke a personal universe, a world filled with types of individuals, event, and outcomes reflecting how the world is to him or her. As an example exaggerated to demonstrate the range of its potential, the home furnishings, clothing sizes, and choices of personal possessions would be notably different were such items be in a universe orchestrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than were they detailed by the actor Danny DiVito.

Each individual projects a discreet Reality, an alternate reality to all other realities, an alternate reality to yours. Sometimes, as when you read work as remarkable and textured as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy, you are deeply engaged, not only in the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, you are sent off on the speculative journey of a parallel universe set in a landscape close to the one where you taught for thirty-four years, the University of Southern California, where Philip Pullman has caused you to see, through his creation of Lyra Belacqua, the idiosyncrasies and otherness of a world you recognized as idiosyncratic and other, but in a patchwork quilt rather than any thematic throughline.

You continue to speak of the mystery novel as the one a beginning writer needs to study for the need to focus on the most serious matter at hand, the dramatic resolution of the crime triggering the onset of the story. But you must add something--a parallel or alternate universe something--to the equation by which you measure the effects of the universe upon you and the relative unlikely scenario by which you can have any effect on the universe unless, like the watched pot you sometimes watch as it comes to boil, the effect of you watching the universe will produce some result.

The alternate or parallel universe narrative helps us see the universe as the drop of water sees the ocean, simultaneously drawn to it while frightened by its enormity and, taking you back to those thirty-four years at USC, hard put to control your laughter at the memories of all that seriousness, braided with all that self-importance and otherness.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

One for My Maybe and One More for the Woad

Depending on such realities as the times your classes are scheduled or the pure whim of being able to begin the day's writing activities, your two basic matters to confront are:

1) What is the project you'll be working on 
2) Will you work at home or "go out," 

this last option having a direct correlation to you and the idiosyncrasies inherent in your writing self.

To be clear and illustrative, your "home," a compact, two-room and tiny bath space, is ideal for your purposes, relatively free of detached connections to ambient noise, buffered on three sides with garden, the fourth side separated from direct contact by a tall hedge and, beyond that, a wide-enough-to-serve-as-easement driveway. The fact of an Animal Control facility at one end of the long drive and a fire station at the other does not imply distractions to work or concentration that need to be overcome.

The question of working "in," or "out," is more a reflection on your own inner ambience. Much of the time, you are well able to work in the calm and comfortable quite of "in."  Those other times, when you are not able to settle immediately to work, have in common your ability to focus enough on the writer within, the conglomeration of senses, memories, impressions, ideas, and enthusiasm you like to bring with your combination toolkit and lunchbox.

Your choice of outside workplaces becomes a matter of which coffee shop has the best level of ambient noise and distraction. Thus, for the sake of work, you rank the coffee shop not by the quality of its coffee, rather by the type and intensity of ambient noise.

An out-of-home writing session might begin with the assessment, How much focus will you need to begin working? This to be followed with, will you be able to type on your laptop, or will you be writing on a legal pad? Do you require the flat-out noise of The Daily Grind, or perhaps the less persistent ambience of Peet's? Perhaps you'd be more comfortable with The French Press on State Street. 

On the other hand, perhaps what you need is the more dedicated sense of concentration you experience at French Press across the street from Antioch. And, just in case your inner disarray communicates a need for the anarchy of experiment, perhaps a place where you haven't been for some time, say Red's in the Funk Zone, or The Handlebar, or, more notional yet, the six or seven miles south to Carpinteria, where The Lucky Llama awaits. 

Starbucks is simply not on the table, even though there are a number of them nearby and, in particular when you are traveling beyond Santa Barbara, you've been known to enjoy a flat white at Starbucks. The issue here is the need for a particular kind of focus to help overcome some of the static and interference with writing as close to spot-on as possible.

In a literal and figurative sense, this business of where and how to work is a set-up, it is so in the same way "A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar" is a set-up for a joke, which, by its own nature, is a form of story, waiting for the punchline of closure.

You've read much, talked much, and thought a great deal about the processes of composition and of revising earlier drafts. This process is all the more meaningful to you given your earlier experiences with an approach wherein draft one was for the material and draft two was to correct spelling, at which you were awful. The way things stand today, there are places in the living and dining areas of your studio where one can find discreet stacks of handwritten pages or print-outs of pages that bear the scribbles and dithering of your revision attempts. Part of your process for work, as you noted a few paragraphs ago, is which thing to work on at a given moment. 

That is also the set-up. "This writer sees a stack of manuscript, picks it up, and begins reading to see what it is."  You could call that Act One.  Act Two, "The writer becomes intrigued by the material and wonders how the fuck it got into his apartment.  Ah, he thinks, probably a student's manuscript, or an editing job he took on, then conveniently forgot.

Of course the payoff is the realization that the writer is, in fact, the writer of the material, which awareness helps him recapture the enthusiasm and mechanics of having written this much and in this much detail. The added payoff came when the teacher aspects of you and the book reviewer aspects and the editorial background are already suggesting changes in the order of scenes, conflating lines of dialogue, removing unnecessary details, things that imply without needing further description.

The setting is, for example, early Middle Ages England, and a tribal elder is observing to a lost young man, "When you come to the turn in the woad--"

"You mean road."

"Damnit, boy, I know what I mean. I'm talking about a dye, made from the leaves of the oxalis. Turns the body a proper blue for the ritual dances, don't you know?"

There are times as well when the set-up, the discovery of the handwritten or printed-out draft, indicates flat, disingenuous narrative, and opportunity to learn from whoever left this material among your material, that writer person who should have known better than to stay and home and endure the separation when a few hours at The Good Cup or French Press would have worked wonders.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Truth, the Knockoff Wristwatch of the Marketplace

For quite some time now, at least as far back as the switch from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, you've thought, written, and taught about the evolutionary progress of Story as a dramatic medium. One of your classes, "How to Write the Twenty-first Century Short Story," focused on point of view. Another seminar, "Fiction in the Twenty-First Century," began with a list of illustrative examples which at the same time confirmed and informed your vision.

Preparation for such courses and for reviews of newly published fiction reminded me how much you enjoyed focusing on this topic and, at the same time reminded you how important it is to you as the driving force to your own interest in composing your own fiction. In  truth, you were--and indeed are--still in the process of learning your craft to the point where you are aware of it much of your waking day and a portion of your sleeping hours.

At the same time drama has been evolving, so, too, has truth, which in your observation of it has been experiencing a tidal rather than steadily advancing movement. The outcome of your observations is the more obvious one in which you recognize how close a picture you provide of yourself when you attempt to provide a picture of truth.  

In effect, truth is an abstraction to the degree you are an abstract being; truth is tangible to the extent of your awareness of being defined by your honesty rather than your quest for truth.

You can still remember the degrees of impatience you felt at those early ages, where you encountered stories of individuals setting out on a quest for honesty and truth. Difficult to recall those times and those moments of impatience without recognizing your own near chronic impatience--the impatience to find ways out of what seemed to you the restrictions and powerlessness of your age.

You can also relate the diminution of your impatience to your discovery of and immersion in reading and, relying on your interest as well in truthfulness, your arrival at age seventeen or eighteen as one who considered himself well-read. A year or so at the then main library at UCLA cured you forever of the notion of being well-read, making one of your first deliberate negotiations with Reality by adjusting your self image to that of one who was sufficiently read, but only by the barest degree of sufficiency.

This negotiation with reality has placed your awareness on your obligation to continue reading, in effect to keep up with what you need to know in order to better recognize it, should you encounter it during the warp and weft of your days.

Truth, as an abstraction and a tangible quality, is under constant attack, by no means least of all from yourself, eager to see yourself as the protagonist of your personal narrative, the active rather than passive one, the seeker of qualities, abilities, and information that will allow you to provide direct assistance and quality of life to others beyond yourself.

This vision of yourself is under frequent critical scrutiny from within, asking you in the bluntest of terms when you are going to admit weaving fictions or untruths in which to clothe your own self-serving motives. Nor can you evade the bright light of inquiry by allowing how most humans are torn by the same binary, thus allowing yourself additional wiggle room from that id-like aspect of your inner life.

Story, when you get into your own, is difficult enough going when you consider the need to keep current with technique, which is to say the obligation to aspire at all times to achieve sufficient awareness; story becomes even more difficult when you need to keep current with the ebbs and flow of honesty within.

Truth may well be, as Keats observed, Beauty; Beauty may well be Truth, and that equation may well be all you need to know. But unless you are careful, Truth may also be a knockoff wristwatch, made in some garage by some counterfeiter who doesn't even know how to spell Genuine Swiss Movement.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Smug Certainty of a Well-Buried Guilty Knowledge

In a most general way, knowledge is a combination of facts and relationships that add to our ability to survive and flourish at increased levels of comfort and civility. Among your favorite types of knowledge, so far as story is concerned, two have become paramount as valid sources for motivation. One of these is guilty knowledge, awareness individuals have about their complicity in attitudes and behavior they find, to say the least, distasteful. 

 The other knowledge is secret knowledge, awareness about the self that may be more linked to the potential for humiliation or degraded self-esteem than guilty participation.

Filed away in your own locked drawer of guilty knowledge are a few files of the equivalent of cold cases, those unsolved crimes which become solved thanks to the efforts of compulsive, persistent detectives. Most of your guilty knowledge relates to things you did with full awareness of their impropriety, their flat-out wrongness, or of the times when you might have done something to prevent some offense being carried out against another individual. 

To a degree you cannot quantify, your own guilty knowledge informs activities you perform as a payback, with no expectation of having the record expunged but with the awareness of a sense of the privilege inherent in having been born to the parents you were born to, of having a life on this planet, and in some ways regarding many of those about you the way you'd respect the waitstaff at an agreeable restaurant.

This equivalent of being a generous tipper to an outstanding waitstaff or to any but the most rude and self-involved in service professions is only one way of recognizing on an individual level those persons who bring awareness and enjoyment to your life on a daily basis. Another way of extending appreciation is by giving sincere smiles and good cheer. 

Yet another way is giving appropriate individuals your in-the-moment time, which is to say a direct, eye-contact presence, and another way still is by writing letters or emails commending employees with whom some exchange or interaction made you aware how significant friendly human contact can be.

One more way of being in the game is acting on the privilege of being able to write letters commending students to potential employers or to graduate schools. 

Secrets are another matter. Being trusted with one or more from another individual becomes the great gift of that person trusting you with sensitive information. Conversely, although there are individuals with whom you've shared secrets,  you recognize how you've more or less given away a trace of power when you confide in another. In addition, your mind races ahead to fictional, thus imagined, situations where you recognize how volatile the power can be.

By sifting through your list of secrets, you're amused to discover how much these bits of information must be to you, as related in direct proportion to your concerns about outcome, were these secrets made public. Such thought often lead you to the inevitable confrontation with the matter of how many secrets are you keeping from yourself, you who find it easy and comfortable to see yourself as calm, well centered (but not in any political sense), not concerned you will one day soon be discovered and recognized as that consummate, Bernie Madoff film-flam your Interior Critic knows you to be.

When you are auditioning characters for appearances in short stories and novels, you often ask of them, "What do you feel the most guilty about?" or "Tell me one thing about you that you've not told more then one or two other persons during the course of your life to date?"

These two aspects of the self, as they relate to fictional inventions, often lead you to uncomfortable destinations you might not otherwise have thought to visit. These are places where the pillows are hard and cranky, the showers never have enough hot water, and the persons upstairs are off-the-charts inconsiderate about making noises. Yet you do understand how, if you are to create characters of any dimension and stature, you must visit such places, aware of the irony inherent in the knowledge that comfort zones are for the civilian travelers and whatever your secrets and backstories of guilty knowledge, you gave up being a civilian traveler many years ago.